TODAY’S WAVE OF PROTESTS WILL
BE AS EPHEMERAL AS THE SIXTIES
At Temple University in the late 1960s, you could always spot a certain guy hanging around the library, dining hall, student center — or leading discussions amid small knots of students out on the quad.
My friends and I weren’t sure if he was a student himself, since he never seemed to attend class. But he was very distinctive looking: older (late thirties – early forties); the requisite Peter-and-Paul goatee; always dressed in the same scruffy-hip clothes (khaki green pants, jean jacket, work boots, beret); never without his mile-worn, leather satchel stuffed with political books and pamphlets.
Rumor had it he was the local Communist Party operative. And I think that scuttlebutt was accurate.
He’d show up at the campus radio station where I worked, delivering some press advisory on the latest student demonstration scheduled to break out spontaneously the next day. Then you’d see him lurking about the edges of the march with a crew of helpers furtively passing out signs.
He seemed to be in charge of things the day Jerry Rubin, founder of the Yippies and one of the infamous Chicago Seven, appeared at a campus rally.
I imagine there was a whole cadre of shadowy characters like that guy at colleges and universities around the country, toiling to bring on The Revolution. By now, most have probably passed over to that great collective farm in the sky.
But they had their moment. And they left a legacy: the soft-headed pseudo-intellectuals of my generation who listened raptly and swallowed the cliché of America as a great racist, oppressor nation, then went on to get their Ph.D.’s and tenured professorships, and now carry the flag of progressivist fantasy.
The current wave of campus protest has much in common with the ferment of my youth — if you understand what the Youth Rebellion of those days was all about. Today we tend to see the 1960s as a revolutionary time. But that’s not quite right.
It’s true that the Civil Rights Movement gained intensity (and via TV news, a high level of national visibility and public sympathy) during those years, cresting in passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But “Negro Equality” had been pursued with varying degrees of earnestness since the end of World War II. Like other causes championed in the ’60s, its full impact wouldn’t be felt until later decades.
Most of the ’60s years were actually very conservative. This was the “Mad Men” age of narrow ties, Jackie Kennedy hairdos, and conspicuous consumption. It was the button-down era of New Frontier anti-Communism and a kind of social/moral propriety that (if beginning to loosen in private) was still maintained in front of the neighbors.
That’s why the whole Youth Rebellion thing came as such a shock at the time.
I have always suspected that Beaver Cleaver was responsible for the discontent of my generation — at least the discontent of working-class white kids at streetcar colleges like Temple.
We weren’t really angry at “THE MAN.” We were just disappointed that life in our families wasn’t like what we saw in the dignified suburban homes of primetime situation comedies.
Our fathers weren’t polished and successful like those wise, warm, suit-wearing TV dads. Our moms weren’t soothing and elegant like June Cleaver, Margaret Anderson, or Donna Stone, gliding effortlessly from housework to PTA meetings in pearls, heels, and haute couture.
I can’t attest to the motives of trust fund babies on Ivy League campuses. Perhaps their rebellion was based on inheritance guilt. But for us at Temple, it was about class.
We knew we didn’t have any.
Most of us were the first generation of our families to even go to college. So we tried to do things that smelled classy.
We watched impenetrable art movies like, “Hiroshima mon amour.” Pretended to be up on the theories of advanced thinkers like Marshall McLuhan. Dabbled in the stylish ramblings of Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.
And we made a lot of noise about the Vietnam War. In fact, Vietnam was what held Youth Rebellion together. When the war and the draft ended, Youth Rebellion evaporated like the mist it always had been.
So what’s driving today’s campus rebels?
Well, here I’ll draw a distinction. As the Civil Rights Movement ran on a track apart from most ’60s campus protest, some current demonstrations involve race-related concerns that call for separate inquiry. Those aside, however, I’d say that most of the ferment in higher education now is based on…nothing.
Quite literally, nothing — at least that’s how it looks to me.
Far too many of today’s college students live with vast empty spaces where inquisitiveness and enthusiasm ought to reside. That’s reflected in the shallowness of their “activism.” They can’t even claim to be advancing the “ideals” we fancied were driving us, as inadequately defined as those “ideals” were (raising human consciousness and so on).
My generation was told we were the brightest, most gifted ever — that we could accomplish anything. These kids have been raised in a culture that shields their feelings, clears away resistance to pretty much any loose impulse, and (in the name of self-esteem) assures them that accomplishment really doesn’t matter, as long as everybody comes out the same.
Having received their “trophies for showing up,” having been steeped in every form of modern, high-tech play, having been indulged even beyond the level of my own over-indulged cohort — while simultaneously protected from every challenge and any disturbing thought — they seem horrendously bored.
Little wonder so many succumb to the modern leftist novelties: gender theories, feminist critiques, grand scenarios of oppression and victimhood, abhorrence of Eurocentric Whiteness, and all the rest. They’ve swallowed the whole array of ideological claptrap peddled by graying academics who learned the craft of intellectual child abuse at the feet of those old ’60s campus commies.
Yes, things are noisy on the higher education scene — no doubt about that — though today’s protests are every bit as spontaneous as they were in my time. Which is to say, not very.
It would appear that most of the current demands have something to do with tolerance. But the rationales one hears tend to be rather contradictory and self-defeating.
There’s an unprecedented tolerance for some ideas (and behaviors) long considered inimical to healthy civic life. Meanwhile, intolerance has hardened against other ideas once thought essential to higher education (like open discussion, objective scholarship, respect for diverse opinions).
At the heart of it all is…nothing. We’re witnessing a contrivance of display attempting to disguise a rational vacuum.
A colleague of mine (editor of an important online journal) has a somewhat different take. He believes that what we’re seeing on campus “is not a repetition of the ’60s.” In an email, he postulated that today’s unrest is…
“the conclusion of a process that began in that decade, namely the ‘long march’ through the institutions outlined by [Marxist theorists] Gramsci and Marcuse. Having spent several decades solidifying their hold over the university system, the academic left is now using students to purge the system of all ‘reactionary elements’ in order to assume complete control. From that point, I assume they will work to transform the student body into some form of Red Guards to assault the country as a whole.”
In which case, the contradictions of the protests and the vacuity of the protestors are pretty much beside the point. Power is all that matters.
It’s an intriguing — if scary — proposition. And he could be right. But even if creating a latter-day Red Guards is the grand design, I doubt there’s time to carry that plan to completion.
Given the nation’s current trajectory, what will likely bring campus ferment to its end is the very thing that sustained it in my day: war. As our military commitments increase overseas (which they are), as a major conflict looms over the Middle East (which it does), and as terrorist threats multiply at home (which is inevitable), basic questions of life and death will supersede progressivist fantasy.
In other words, the kids will grow up — most of them, anyway. They’ll have to.
Let’s pray that the price of it won’t be too awfully high — for them and for all of us.
But…the world goes on.
The wheel turns.
The ’60s are back.
And everything old is new again.
Social psychologist Jonathan David Haidt of New York University’s Stern School of Business, does a brilliant send-up of today’s academic environment in an entertaining and informative video on YouTube.
Speaking before a group of students, Haidt portrays two college recruiters. One represents “Strength University,” where students are intellectually challenged, and the other represents “Coddle University,” where young people never encounter an unsettling idea. The video takes about a half hour to watch, but it’s time well invested in some very astute (and amusing) insights…
As savvy as Haidt is about the current higher-ed world, he found himself taken aback by the attitudes he encountered when giving his presentation on the campus of a certain unnamed prep school. He was surprised to discover that the seeds of student “victimhood” and the related pathology of “political correctness” may actually be sown at the secondary-education level. As reported on the blog, Minding the Campus, he observed that students…
“learn to engage with books, ideas, and people using the twin habits of defensive self-censorship and vindictive protectiveness….
“Their high schools have thoroughly socialized them into what sociologists call victimhood culture, which weakens students by turning them into ‘moral dependents’ who cannot deal with problems on their own.”
He cautions educators that…
“Once you allow victimhood culture to spread on your campus, you can expect ever more anger from students representing victim groups, coupled with demands for a deeper institutional commitment to victimhood culture, which leads inexorably to more anger, more demands, and more commitment.”
Read his insightful observations at…
More in the way of pure fun than insight, here’s the immortal Mitzi Gaynor (remember “South Pacific”?) singing “Everything Old is New Again” on her 1976 Emmy-winning TV special “Mitzi…Roarin’ in the 20’s”…